In 2007 writer Steven Kotler published a book about surfing called West of Jesus: Surfing, Science and the Origins of Belief. It was an unusual tale the way the Wizard of Oz is an unusual tale. The former GQ Editor-at-Large was suffering from Lyme Disease and it had gone undiagnosed long enough to wreck most of his life. Eventually, he’s diagnosed and with the aid of some powerful pharmaceuticals he begins to recover. The story takes its fateful turn when a friend arrives one day to get him off the couch and take him surfing. While the surfing leaves him so fatigued he can barely move for a week afterward, repeat trips to the beach spur his progress. He’s convinced that the activity makes him better, even as it wears him out. The why becomes the quest that drives the book. What Kotler encounters is the concept of the flow state. The term was coined by Czech psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as a way to identify periods of profound concentration. But Kotler wasn’t satisfied with a cool pop psych term. Something was happening when he was surfing, something beyond his ken. Among the effects he noted was the way time slowed as he turned. He began chasing every lead he could find, everything from the runner’s high to how hallucinogens led to the development of SSRIs.
West of Jesus was the first work to aggregate all the neuroscience known about the effects of flow states. The full suite of neurochemicals released form the most powerful mind-altering state known to man. And they are the domain of the endurance athlete. West of Jesus turned out to be the beginning of the quest, not the end of it.
Kotler’s next book, A Small, Furry Prayer investigated, among other things, flow states in animals.
After reading West of Jesus I reached out to Kotler to discuss his research. I was curious about the intersection between cycling and flow. While I’d heard of flow prior to reading West of Jesus, up to that point it was just another phrase, like “in the zone.” Once I knew there was a biological basis for this thing I’d been chasing my whole life, I was able to reframe my quest. Now I had a reason for why I loved descending so much. I dropped down the canyon roads of the Santa Monicas instead of taking SSRIs.
One day I called him with an idea. What if adrenalin junkies weren’t addicted to adrenalin at all, but were actually chasing flow states? What if we had them all wrong? Turns out, Steven was way ahead of me. He was working on a feature for Playboy magazine that explored extreme athletes, looking at them as high priests of flow. That feature became the backbone of his latest book, The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance. The Rise of Superman is a tour de force. It is the work of a subject master expert in his element. While Steven didn’t conduct the research that he details in Rise, he is arguably the subject’s best expert because no one is better versed on all the known research into flow states. He is the single greatest aggregation point for information on the subject.
While I’ve written about flow states previously here, here and here, this is probably a good point to define just what constitutes a flow state, at least in broad strokes. There are six major components to a flow state as defined by Csikszentmihalyi. They are:
- Intense and focused concentration
- Merging of action and awareness
- Loss of reflective self-consciousness (the “I” disappears)
- A sense of personal control, mastery
- A distortion of time
- Experience the activity as intrinsically rewarding
This sixth point is arguably the defining characteristic of flow; it’s autotelic. That is, it’s a feedback loop of fulfillment. Flow makes you feel so good—not just blankly, but about yourself—that no one needs to offer you any incentive to go there. Flow is the at the root of the surf bum, the dirtbag climber, the itinerant bike racer.
Rise examines some of the most extreme of extreme athletes: skateboarder Danny Way who launched over the Great Wall of China, Laird Hamilton who redefined big wave surfing, and big wall climber Dean Potter, among others. If choosing such subjects seems sensationalistic, Kotler has a deeper purpose. The point of flow isn’t to chase some random hedonic pleasure, but to achieve a state where we are at our best, where we tap into the furthest reach of our abilities, where we have no choice but to execute with our best judgement. For extreme athletes, as Kotler notes repeatedly, these situations are flow or die.
One of the more startling revelations I encountered in the book was that researchers had determined the requisite increase in challenge to keep achieving flow. This requires a little backing up as well. We enter flow states when we face a challenge that takes us to the limit of our ability. If the challenge outstrips our ability (trying to ride a World Cup downhill course on your road bike), we experience anxiety. On the other hand, if the challenge is insufficient (riding an adult tricycle on flat ground), we experience boredom. The problem here is that last year’s whoa becomes this year’s easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
So what sort of challenge do you have to chase to get back into flow? Just four percent harder. That’s all. One needn’t fear that chasing flow means cruising for mortal danger, but it explains how if you add enough 4 percent challenges together, a kid can go from riding his skateboard off a curb to pulling a backflip in a pool two years later.
In examining the achievements of extreme athletes Kotler is able to describe altered states of consciousness and highlight the power that flow can have in our lives. His work is counterintuitive here. Few of us want to scale El Capitan in a single afternoon or surf a 50-foot wave, but the exploits of these athletes become his argument for the satisfaction we can achieve in our own lives if we eschew multitasking in favor of profound concentration, giving ourselves permission to focus on a single task with the whole of our consciousness. And that’s the point, we needn’t risk our lives to achieve flow, but that feeling of mastery, the intensity that strips the rest of the world away and we enter a timeless state, that’s the chicken stock of happiness and fulfillment.